When people think of Marriott chances are the view is a plethora of brands ranging from its namesake four-star flag to a variety of limited service offerings filling up the lines on expense accounts for road warriors in their rented cars. With its portfolio of luxury brands expanding, the company is now prioritizing how it can leverage the eclectic group ranging from Ritz-Carlton to JW Marriott, Renaissance, Edition and Autograph Collection Hotels. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Doug Gollan met Marriott International Chief Global Officer for Luxury and Lifestyle Brands Tina Edmundson (below left with model Coco Rocha during an event to celebrate Atlantis in the Bahamas joining Autograph Collection Hotels) to find out what’s ahead.
Elite Traveler: Tell us a bit about your position?
Tina Edmundson: I do luxury and lifestyle brands for Marriott. There is a very intentional focus by Marriott International in the luxury and lifestyle space. I’m not sure how well known the fact is that Marriott has 450 hotels in the luxury and lifestyle space. When you think about Marriott International you obviously think about Marriott hotels, but there are so many other brands—many of which don’t carry the Marriott designation—that are certainly part of the portfolio. Ritz-Carlton, Bulgari, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Autograph, AC, and Moxy are all part of my portfolio.
ET: Is this position relatively new?
TE: It’s about eighteen months old now. The idea was dual-fold. One is internal. There are so many synergies amongst those brands. They’re not huge brands—Ritz-Carlton is 86 or 87 hotels, JW is almost 70, Autograph Collection also has 67 hotels, etc.—so there’s definitely value in keeping these brands together, a lot of synergies behind the scenes. Also from a consumer perspective, it’s really a chance to make an impact with an audience that will make purchases across those brands.
ET: Can we expect to see in the future more initiatives to group the brands together?
TE: I don’t know how much consumer-facing stuff we’ll do, quite honestly, because we want each brand to live and breath on its own because they’re very different propositions. The propositions are very clear and we don’t really want to muddy the water with that. Behind the scenes we’ve started a luxury council, for example. There are a lot of things that a consumer may not see immediately, so we won’t go to market as a luxury portfolio necessarily, but we’ll take all of the learnings and apply them in their own unique way to the particular brands.
ET: The focus will be on best practices?
TE: Definitely. To flesh out new ideas, get some reactions, have partnerships, develop relationships, that kind of thing.
ET: Tell me a bit about where the brands are today.
TE: Ritz-Carlton (Kyoto, pictured right) is at 86 hotels today and will be at 100 hotels by the end of 2016, so doing very well. Most of the growth is in Asia, where there’s a lot of interest. Key for that brand right now is the evolution of the experience to fit what consumers want today. You’ve seen this I’m sure in your travels where consumers are really shifting to the experiential part of their stay. This fits perfectly with what Ritz-Carlton is all about, because Ritz-Carlton is about creating memories. So taking our ladies and gentlemen and really being able to deliver on experiences in a meaningful way is super important. Ritz-Carlton Reserve is a brand extension, and similar to Bulgari. Very intentionally we are not trying to put Ritz-Carlton Reserve everywhere. It’s very select, pretty remote locations that really embody what we want to try and achieve—this escape, this retreat for people. In a similar vein, Bulgari is also very specific to being in locations that make sense for that brand. The essence at the hotels is reflective of the retail brand, but brought to life with gracious service and an enchanting feel.
Then we have Edition hotels, a partnership with Ian Schrager. We’re opening a Miami Edition hotel (pictured below) by the end of the year. We have 10 to 11 hotels in the pipeline as well. This is another brand that will live in major markets. We also just announced Los Angeles. I would say forty to fifty hotels (are in the plan).
Autograph collection is at 67 hotels to date—probably one of the fastest launches of any full-service brand ever. The wonderful part about Autograph collection is that each hotel itself is a brand. The collection is really a canvas that celebrates these wonderfully unique independent hotels.
ET: Are these representation agreements like a Leading Hotels of the World or a Preferred Hotels & Reosrts?
TE: They’re not. Most of them are franchised, but they are full franchisees of Marriott.
ET: What’s the role in operations?
We don’t have one, just as we wouldn’t if we had a Marriott that was franchised. We wouldn’t have a role, but they’d have to meet our standards. With Autograph Collection we don’t have as many standards because we want to preserve the uniqueness and authenticity of each of the hotels, but they sit on our platform, so you can book, for example, the Brown Palace in Denver (below) on Marriott.com as well as on their independent website.
The value proposition for the owner and the developer is hey, ‘I do what I do, but in addition to that I get a lot of business from Marriott.’
ET: How is it different than Leading or Preferred?
TE: Preferred and Leading are marketing agreements, and there’s not typically another affiliation. With Autograph, if you’re the owner you can get the benefit of our entire reservation system, you can take advantage of our suppliers, you get the benefit of all of our contracts, so there’s a lot more. It’s really a fully integrated partnership.
ET: What types of contracts?
TE: Credit card companies. We have 4,000 hotels. We have preferred rates for a lot of stuff—because we have 4,000 hotels.
ET: Everything from credit cards to linens?
TE: Right. Once you’re our partner, you’re fully our partner, and it’s a much more holistic relationship versus hey, ‘we’ll pay you if you give us some sleeping rooms.’ They also get the benefit of our global sales offices and that kind of thing.
ET: Tell me a bit about Renaissance.
TE: Renaissance has 157 hotels worldwide, and is a brand truly about ‘discovery.’ Discovery is the mantra. They bring it to life through proof points like our Navigators, which are souped-up concierges. The information that they’re providing is very akin to what customers want today: ‘don’t tell me what I can find in Zagat. Tell me something that the locals know.’ That’s the differentiator for the Navigator.
We also have an entertainment platform called RLife LIVE. We bring in local mixologists, artists, or musicians, etc. to make the hotel lobby the local hub, the place to hang out. It’s where people can discover something new when they travel. When you travel, you’re typically by yourself, and you don’t want to be up in your room, you want to be entertained on some level. They may not necessarily want to be in the middle of it, but if they want to be in the middle of it, they can. So they can choose or not choose to participate. What we’re trying to do is create that hub for them.
ET: Are there significant growth opportunities that you see?
TE: We have a couple of wonderful openings and renovations coming up. The one that we’re most excited about in the United States is Madison Square Garden. That opens July of next year. It’s a new building hotel with 348 rooms and suites. We have a hotel in Chicago (with the Renaissance North Shore) that is undergoing a huge renovation. It will be renovated by April or May of next year. We have nine openings next year. We had 11 this year: Denver opened this year, Aix-en-Provence, Santiago, another hotel in Paris, which is like an old country club, and a beautiful one opening in Beijing.
ET: And what’s happening with JW Marriott?
TE: JW is at almost 70 hotels. JW is approachable luxury, and we’re trying to curate the experience for guests based on their individual passions. So we go pretty deep, because these guest likes to go deep. Wine is a big deal. A lot of our guests are connoisseurs, so from an activation standpoint we focus on that. It’s also a brand that is very focused on wellbeing, so from a culinary and experience standpoint our focus is about delivering those types of things. We have partnerships as well with Christie’s and Joffrey Ballet.
ET: So if I stayed at the JW I could get into the Christie’s auction because I’m a JW customer?
JW: Yes, it’s an activation for the hotel. And so, guests can get these experiences while they’re traveling. To our earlier conversation, when you travel, you want to have unique experiences that you wouldn’t ordinarily have.
ET: Assuming both have hotels in the same market, does the same person who stays at The Ritz-Carlton on one trip go to an Autograph on another trip?
TE: We haven’t done a whole ton of analysis around that, but we do see a lot of crossover. We believe that you make your selection of a hotel or a brand based on your trip persona—it’s the reason that you’re traveling. You may stay at the JW because you’re on business, you may stay for a weekend getaway at an Autograph, or a Ritz-Carlton because you’re going to a wedding. It depends on the purpose of your trip, and we see that as a driving factor within the tier.
ET: Ritz-Carlton was one of the holdouts on having a formal points-based rewards program. What have you found that has surprised you, either positively or negatively about introducing a rewards program?
TE: Beyond the stage of asking ‘is this the right thing to do?’ there has not been anything negative about it. It’s been hugely positive. In retrospect, we’re glad that we did it. We’re seeing redemptions and people wanting their points. We see it as a way in the future to continue to enhance the guest experience through providing experiences that you could redeem for points. It’s a wonderful vehicle, particular in today’s day and age, so we’re glad that we’ve launched it.
ET: Have you been able to track new customers who have come into Ritz-Carlton specifically because all of a sudden you were offering the points?
TE: What we believe that we’re seeing is incremental revenues from a larger share of wallet, if you will.
ET: Do you see technology taking away from the type of personally attentive service one thinks of when thinking of a luxury hotel stay?
TE: From a standpoint of what does technology do in the luxury market, our ambition is really hi-tech, hi-touch. How do we use technology to enable our staff to provide service, or to be more engaging, or to take away from the transaction so we can engage in the experience. We have a CRM system [Customer Relationship Management] with some of our luxury brands that help us do that. Where technology is today, with what is available in terms of information about guests outside and what we can gather, we can deliver a much more personalized experience, and that’s what it’s all about.
TE: Do you see the core user across the different brands having different interests in the level of technology? Is an Autograph customer more interested than a Ritz-Carlton customer in technology?
TE: Technology has become such a necessity, unfortunately or fortunately. At every level, from the 20-year-old staying at a Moxy (a Marriott budget lifestyle brand) or a Ritz-Carlton guest, it’s equally as important. They are equally as demanding of fast Wi-Fi, connectivity, plugs, and all of the things you’d think. The trick as luxury providers is how do we capitalize on it on technology internally with our staff to deliver a differentiated experience.
ET: Are there any opportunities you see in the market to acquire more luxury brands?
TE: There’s always the opportunity. We’re always looking to see if there are gaps or if there is a segment of population that we’re not reaching currently. We’re always interested.
ET: When you look at holes, is there a specific area of the luxury profile that you would like to bulk up in like resorts?
TE: For me, resorts are wonderful. You can never have enough. It’s sort of like the saying, you can never be too rich or too skinny!
ET: Is there anything new specific to the meetings market in the luxury portfolio?
TE: In the next year or so, we’ll have services that will be quite specific to a meetings traveler. That is an area in the hotel space that’s been largely undifferentiated. It’s something that we think can be quite interesting for us. As you know, particularly in Ritz-Carlton and JW, we have lots of meeting space, so that’s a big focus for us in the business space.